Elliott WBC workout day: Dempster, Gagne, Naylor, Orr

RHP Eric Gagne loosens up on work out day at the Bobby Mattick Center in Dunedin. Photo: Amanada Fewer. 

RHP Eric Gagne loosens up on work out day at the Bobby Mattick Center in Dunedin. Photo: Amanada Fewer. 

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

DUNEDIN, Fla. _ Who else but a brother to put things into proper perspective?

Right-hander Ryan Dempster will start for Canada against the defending World Baseball Classic champion Dominican Republic Thursday at Marlins Park in Miami. He will be 1,270 days between starts.

Dempster’s last start was Sept. 17, 2013 for manager John Farrell when the Baltimore Orioles visited Fenway Park and Dempster worked six inning for the Red Sox.

Chris Dempster told his brother leading up to his start against the Dominican: “don’t worry Ryan, only the whole country is counting on you.’’

Welcome back kiddo, you have not started in three years, five months and 21 days ... no matter ... hey, how about facing a lineup of Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Santana and Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista. Go get ‘em.

Canada is guaranteed three games: Dempster goes Thursday and after an off day RHP Nicholas Pivetta (Victoria, BC) starts Saturday at noon against Colombia and Sunday round-robin play concludes Sunday night against Team USA. The top two of the four countries advance.

“When I told friends I was going to play in the WBC, they thought it was some sort of beer-league softball event,” Dempster told reporters. “They didn’t comprehend the fact that I was actually going to try and do this ... I said, “No, the World Baseball Classic.’ They were like. “What?’ I was going to face some of the best hitters in the world.”

* * *
WBC BOARD: “Hey how ‘bout Israel, they’ve playing the host Korea and it’s all even after seven innings,” some one said when we arrived at the Bobby Mattick Training Center.
 
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MISSING, MISSING: An ESPN chart listing last year’s best Canadian players to appear in the majors as Joey Votto, Russell Martin, Michael Saunders, Brett Lawrie, James Paxton and John Axford.

And Canada went 0-for-6 on that list, although Martin was told he could play, but the WBC (Major League Baseball and the Players Association) refused to pay the insurance premium.

Standing outside the clubhouse at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, INF Peter Orr (Newmarket, Ont.) was asked about the missing players.

“They are my friends first and they are still going to be my friends,” said Orr. Like Eric Gagne (Mascouche, Que.) and Dempster, Orr came out of retirement to play for Canada. Orr and free agent Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC), who put his job search on hold to play, are the only two Canucks to play in all four WBC events.

“Everyone is different, everyone has a reason,” Orr said, “You can’t concentrate on the guys who aren’t here, but the reality is we would be a better team if we had those guys. Once we get here, once we put on this jersey ...”

Orr shakes his head, thinking, as he tugs at his red CANADA T-shirt with the spiffy WBC logo.

“Once you get here, it is check your ego at the door time,” he said. “Ernie Whitt makes sure of that, Larry Walker makes sure of that. We all make sure of that. We’ve been fortunate to keep this thing going, back to when Jason Dickson and Stubby Clapp played in the 1990s, they passed it on to Adam Stern and Justin. Then, it was passed on to the next group like Rene Tosoni, Jimmy VanOstrand and Chris Robinson. And now it’s being passed on to the current group of players of Dalton Pompey, Tyler O’Neill and Eric Wood.”

And which group is Orr in? Well, now a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, he belongs to all four.

* * *
NO SHIRTS N SKINS: Usually after a pre-workout the Canadians would exit stage right and play a road hockey game.

For WBC I and WBC II, when training camp was at Dunedin they headed behind a group of trees to an online, paved rink with boards and nets. For WBC III in Arizona they headed to Morneau’s cul-de-sac for a game. 

“No game this year,” Morneau said. “We tried it the first three times and didn’t advance to the second round.”

So the back-up plan was to attend a hockey game as the New York Rangers were visiting the Tampa Bay Lightening.

* * * 
WBC UPDATE: Someone needles Scott Richmond (North Vancouver, BC) with the latest update. Israel, ranked 41st in the World rankings, now has taken No. 3 ranked Korea into extras. And Israel plays Chinese-Taipei next. Richmond was 9-8, with a 4.93 ERA for the EDA Rhinos. He’ll return to the Far East when the WBC is over. 

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BOMBS AWAY: The screen in right field is there to serve and protect players’ cars in the parking lot.

And amongst all of Canada’s left-handed hitters it was Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) who peppered the lot with long-distance bombs.

Having the difficult task of following him in the hitting group was Peter Orr, who had three homers in 748 major-league at-bats and 54 in 5,891 pro plate appearances. Naylor has 13 homers in 619 plate appearances in the minors.  

“I’m used to that ... first I’ve seen Josh hit and second I once hit in a group with the Phillies that hit 61 homers in one round ... and I had one,” said Orr. The other Philadelphia Phillies in the same group were Domonic Brown, Erik Kratz and Brandon Moss.

“You should have seen Freddie Freeman turn his neck asking ‘what the heck was that?’”

Naylor shared time at first base with Freddie Freeman and Justin Morneau.

 
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MAGIC MAN RYAN: Dempster already has a leg up on fitting in. The man who auctioned off two $20 bills for $3,300 each (one to Mike Tevlin, Ontario Terriers, the other to Dale Hooper, Rogers Communications) went into his pocket and split the tab on a Sunday night diner -- with Morneau -- for the whole team and support staff at Eddie V’s Prime Seafood Restaurant in Tampa. 

The $20 bills were autographed by the likes of Larry Walker, Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and other players as well as their jerseys. Terriers coach Greg O’Halloran has told Dempster he’d like to exchange a couple of $20s at the going rate.  

“After I stopped playing my arm was like a turtle in its shell, it kind of climbed back inside and didn’t want to let me throw a ball,” said Dempster. 

“I like where I’m at. I feel like I can go out there and compete, and at least give us a chance to win.”

Manager Ernie Whitt, the former Blue Jays catcher and coach, has not seen Dempster throw but is taking the 16-year veteran’s word that he’s ready. Dempster won 132 games and saved 87 with the Chicago Cubs, Florida Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and the Red Sox.  

He now serves as an assistant to the Cubs president Theo Epstein. He thanked the Cubs and his family for their support. Last week in Arizona he faced Epstein during batting practice and the boss lined a ball to right field.

“I figured I’d had better let him get a hit,’’ Dempster said. “So I would guarantee myself a job there for a few years.”

* * *
COMEBACK ATTEMPT: Gagne is a WBC veteran ... just not for Canada. A year ago he managed France in the WBC qualifier played at Rod Carew Stadium in Panama. 

France lost 9-2 to Panama, beat Spain 5-3 and then lost 7-4 to Panama (after being tied in the seventh inning).  

“I’ve never pitched in the WBC whether it was injuries or contract years it didn’t work out so for me to be part of it ... I was with Team France and I could tell the kids really wanted to be part of it. To be part of that was very special, now I can pitch in it,” Gagne told reporters. “To represent your country means a lot and it tells you how much it means for all of us Canadians and all of us players to be part of something really special.”

With Axford not in the team picture, Gagne could get the ball late should a save opportunity arrive. Gagne has already worked out for five clubs and hopes to by flying off to a training camp.

“It’s one thing to throw on the side, but with adrenaline in a real game situation,” Gagne said. “I’m going to have a chance to see what my stuff is.”

* * * 
MANAGER SPEAK: Whitt said with all the missing parts, if this was a long series you look ahead and say, “Yeah, we really don’t have a chance. But you play any one game at any certain time, anything can happen. We’ve seen that in the past. We’ve knocked off some big guys. We’ve been beat by some little guys, so that’s why you go out and you play the game.”

As if he learned from Bobby Cox, Whitt only worries about who is in his dugout.

“Sometimes if you put a team together for a short period of time, all they’re thinking about is themselves. We talked about the team atmosphere and doing whatever it takes to win and that’s what they’ll do,” Whitt said. “I guarantee if I asked Justin Morneau to bunt, he would bunt.”

* * *
ONE EVENT COMEBACK: While Gagne hopes to return to the game, this is a one-time event for Dempster. 

“No comeback trail for me,’’ Dempster says. “It’s a comeback representing the country. This is something I had always passed on in years’ past. I don’t think regret is the right word, but there was always a little bit of wonderment. I wondered what it would be like if I played in it.

“Besides, it actually wasn’t even that wild of an idea when I found out that Gagne was thinking about doing that. I thought, “Sweet. I’m not the old man.’ Hopefully, we can shock some people and win some games.’’

* * *
REAAAAL 1-5: Besides working for the Cubs, Dempster is also an MLB Network analyst.

If things go well everyone at MLB Network will be behind him, but if he scuffles, who is he most worried about: Mark DeRosa or Kevin Millar?

“DeRosa won’t be too tough on me,” Dempster said, “Millar will be the toughest.”

* * *
WBC FLASHBACK: It was 11 years ago on workout day at Ho-Ho Kam Park in Arizona Whitt had finished with his briefing of the press. He had explained that rather than pitching LHP Erik Bedard (Navan, Ont.) in the second game against Team USA, they would pitch him in Game 1 against South Africa. Instead, LHP Adam Loewen (Surrey, BC) would face USA and Bedard met South Africa.

It was a long time ago and methinks I actually raised my voice. The gist of it was “how do you start Loewen, a kid who has never pitched at double-A against a team with four or five Hall of Famers on it? What are you trying to do ... ruin him?” Whitt was very calm. 

That night I re-told the bullpen conversation to Pat Gillick who lit into me “YOU STAY THE HECK OUT OF IT! ERNIE WHITT KNOWS WHAT HE IS DOING! GREG HAMILTON KNOWS WHAT HE IS DOING! You just watch the game, let them decide who is pitching.”

Canada survived against South Africa scoring a bunch in the top of the ninth off a teenager to beat South Africa. That night Gillick phoned again to tell me to stay out of the pitching plans.

OK. So the next day Loewen pitched 3 2/3 scoreless and Canada thumped Team USA 8-6. 

I waited and waited and waited until I was alone with Whitt.

I apologized.  

* * *

UP NEXT: LHP Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) starts for Canada Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays in an exhibition game. He will be followed to the mound by Erie Gagne, Kevin Champman, Jimmy Henderson (Calgary, Alta.), Ryan Kellogg (Whitby, Ont.) and Scott Mathieson (Aldergrove, BC).

 

* * *
WBC OUT OF TOWN SCOREBOARD: As the players filed into the lunchroom at the Bobby Mattick Centre someone said “hey did you Israel upset Korea?”

The No. 41st ranked country beaat the No. 3 ranked team in their yard? Sure, we saw that one coming.

The sun was shining. 

Good Canadian boys, including newcomer Freddie Freeman paying tribute to his late mother by wearing a Canadian jersey for the first time.

It was a good day to concentrate on who was here.